After Blackwater operators opened fire on civilians in Baghdad last September, killing 17 and wounding more than 20 others, there was speculation that the controversial firm would be replaced by another security contractor when its five-year contract with the State Department expired in May. After all, initial investigations by the military and the FBI indicated that—contrary to Blackwater's version of events—its contractors were at fault in the shootings. "It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," a military official told the Washington Post back in October. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP [Iraqi Police] or any of the local security forces fired back at them." For a company that has maintained that the actions of its contractors were justified, the steps it took immediately after the shootings certainly seemed suspicious. Initially, Blackwater said that damage to its vehicles would prove its side of the story—that its contractors were attacked and were simply defending themselves and their clients. Yet, after the incident, the company reportedly repainted and repaired its vehicles, destroying key evidence that could potentially exonerate the company.
While a cloud still hangs over Blackwater, and it remains the subject of multiple investigations, including one by Henry Waxman's House oversight committee, the State Department shocked some Blackwater watchers yesterday by announcing that it would renew the firm's contract for another year.
The State Department says it can terminate Blackwater's contract at any time—and that the results of the FBI's ongoing investigation, when released, could also affect Blackwater's deal. That said, it's fairly remarkable that State would endure what is sure to be an onslaught of bad PR just to keep Blackwater on the job in Iraq. But there's a reason the agency may be willing to weather the flack—it is scared that the job of guarding the civilians currently protected by Blackwater could fall to its Diplomatic Security branch, which is spread pretty thin as it is. According to the Washington Post, State has a total of 1,400 diplomatic security agents, which are stationed at various posts around the world. Blackwater, by comparison, has close to 1,000 contractors working in Iraq and the ability to deploy many more at a moment's notice. The truth is, the government has become so reliant on PSCs that it is likely willing to overlook a shooting here and a shooting there so long as it doesn't have to deploy its own to resources to do the very dangerous work of guarding diplomats and dignitaries (and, yes, members of the press).
But whether or not Blackwater's contractors are guilty of massacring civilians, there's a rather big problem with the State Department's decision to keep Blackwater on. Many Iraqis already believe that Blackwater, and other security firms, operate with complete impunity, shielded from any form of accountability for their actions, and the U.S. government has done nothing to dispel that notion. Now, by renewing Blackwater's contract, it probably only reinforced the already widespread belief that security contractors are above the law.
Last winter, as Bruce Falconer and I reported our recent story on Blackwater's sister company, Greystone, I rang up retired marine colonel T.X. Hammes, who served in Iraq during the early days of the war and who has been vocal in his belief that security contractors have no place there. He has nothing against Blackwater and said its operators are among the most well-trained and professional of the security contractors working in Iraq, something I've heard from numerous sources. But, he noted, the mission of security contractors—protecting their clients—is inherently in conflict with the military's overarching strategy in Iraq, which involves appealing to the hearts and minds of the people and paving the way for some form of political accommodation. You can imagine how security contractors can and have set these efforts back, when, for instance, they run cars off the road when they get too close to their convoys or, worse, when they wound or kill civilians. "I don't think they belong in an insurgency ever, or in a combat zone ever," Hammes told me. "In a counterinsurgency, essentially it's a competition for the legitimacy of the government. The government is legitimate if it can provide security and hope for a better future. But as part of that hope for a better future, there has to be a feeling that in some way that government is accountable to you.... Iraqis have known these guys will never be punished; they just leave the country." He added, "The very fact that you're using contractors undercuts the legitimacy of the government."